And for some, it seems impossible to deal with.
And for the hours following the attacks on Columbine High School in April 1999, it almost seemed as though the United States shook. In the end, 13 people were killed. Many students were hospitalized. Everyone else was left thinking why and how it happened.
Rick Weinberg is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute (FMHI). In the mid-1980s, he worked closely with Hillsborough County Schools as part of a crisis intervention team.
“The whole community is affected, for one. Sometimes a whole nation can be affected,” Weinberg said.
Even now, the words “school violence” may bring with them more questions than answers.
Randy Borum of the FMHI has been working with the National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education to find some of these answers and develop strategies to prevent these acts from happening again. The alliance, known as the Safe School Initiative, studied 37 incidences of “targeted school violence.” Targeted school violence is defined as school shootings and other acts of violence where the school is the planned target for the attack.
Despite the focus on Columbine and the string of violence through the 1990s, school violence has existed for some time. The earliest incident studied in its final report is from 1974.
According to the findings in the report, many of the perpetrators had problems dealing with loss. Many had attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts.
“Many of the attackers had come to experience life or their current situation as unbearably stressful,” Borum said. “In many cases, there was some loss or loss of status that preceded the attack.”
This could have included, he said, an episode of bullying or humiliation, or the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” in the person’s coping ability.
The attackers studied ranged in age from 11 to 21 across 26 states. All 41 attackers studied were male.
When asked why all the attackers were male, Borum referred to the writing of Safe School Initiative colleague, William Pollack, who wrote that society’s repression of boys feelings causes them to “cry bullets.”
According to the Safe School Initiative Final Report, 61 percent of attackers studied had revenge as a motive. The events were planned, not impulsive.
“Most striking is the fact that nearly all of the attackers had communicated to someone else their ideas, plan or intent to mount an attack before the attack occurred,” Borum said.
This is the next question Borum said he wants to answer.
“This is obviously complex, but we want to determine what barriers exist for students who hear that ‘Johnny told some friends that they shouldn’t be around the library at 9 o’clock on Friday morning because something bad is going to happen,'” he said.
School violence increased greatly in the 1990s with 28 of the 37 incidents studied occurring in that decade.
Weinberg said that the reason for the increase in school violence its multifaceted. He listed ready access to firearms, bullying by peers, televisions violence, social conditions and single shooter video games, as some of the complicating factors leading to school violence.
He also seemed to put some blame on U.S. leaders.
“A good question to ask would be; ‘Is that the state of the union right now,'” Weinberg said. “We’re overly eager to use violent means to solve conflict.”
As for what happens to the victims of the attack, the immediate effects include the obvious health impacts, acute stress syndrome and post traumatic stress disorder, Weinberg said. The long-term effects can go in two different directions.
“The trajectory of their life is going to be changed and certainly it can be negative, but can be positive,” Weinberg said. “No one would ever wish this sort of tragedy on anyone, but it all depends on how you deal with it.”
He recommended people talk about their losses to cope with school violence trauma.
If a student or faculty member thinks someone might resort to an act of violence, Borum had the following advice:
“Listen. Despite the fact that adults thought the student was troubled in some general way or experiencing significant difficulty, there was no apparent proactive effort to connect, hear the problem and restore hope,” Borum said. “These are not otherwise invisible kids. They are already on somebody’s radar screen as kids who need help.”
Borum also said that the key is not to assess a person as “the type” of kid to become a school shooter.
“Rather, the better assessment is to ask whether this kid is on a pathway to a violent act, and, if so, where is he on that path and how quickly is he moving.”
In some cases, the attackers have committed suicide, for others, the future is bleak.
“It’s pretty miserable. Young kids in adult prison with no hope of release,” Borum said, “The kids themselves generally said, in retrospect, it was the wrong thing to do.”
Contact Kristan Brightat firstname.lastname@example.org